Central California Coast Road Trip Guide

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At least twice a year we take a cruise from Los Angeles up to Carmel-By-The-Sea! The central coast is hands down my favorite place in the world and will always have a special place in my heart. Big Sur is where Nate and I went on our first trip together, it was both of our first times and I remember feeling absolutely blown away by all the beauty as we drove up the coast. I’d go so far as to say it’s where we fell in love. We like to take our time on the drive up and stop at all of the best restaurants and cafes along the way. There is no cell service on US-1 highway for almost the entire stretch of Big Sur, so it’s a great time to disconnect and enjoy nature. When we road trip up the coast we typically break it up into three parts (usually 3-4 days). Day 1 is spent driving from Los Angeles to Cambria, making many stops to sight see, grab coffee and visit our favorite restaurants along the way. Day 2 we drive through Big Sur, camp for a couple nights and really enjoy nature off the grid. Part 3 we drive up to Carmel and recover with a hot shower and a comfy bed at Hotel Carmel for a couple nights. Below you’ll find all of our favorite places to stop along the way! I find it really helpful to star everything on Google Maps to get an idea of where everything is.

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Ventura

Harvest Cafe

The perfect place to stop for lunch or a quick snack. Harvest Cafe is a farm to table restaurant serving organic, sustainable and local cuisine.

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Santa Barbara

Coronado Butterfly Preserve

Santa Barbara is usually the first longer stop on our road trip. It’s about 3 hours from Orange County, so by this time I’m usually antsy to get out of the car and stretch my legs. The Coronado Butterfly Preserve is the perfect place to take a walk! The ocean view is beautiful and during warmer months you are likely to see Monarch butterflies fluttering around.

The Honey B

Small cafe serving organic, plant-based dishes. They also have a few egg options!

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Oat Bakery

Oat Bakery is an absolute must when passing through Santa Barbara. They make the most delicious bread from local, seasonal and organic ingredients. They also have gluten free options. Try the GF seed bread with one of their house-made spreads! We like to pick up a couple loaves to snack on while we’re camping.

Solvang

Good Seed Coffee Roasters

Local coffee shop with tons of gluten free & vegan pastry options.

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Succulent Cafe

Go here for a glass of wine and a charcuterie board! Their boards come with the most delicious pickled veggies!

The Landsby

The Landsby is a beautiful Scandinavian inspired boutique hotel. We’ve never stayed here, but it would be my first choice if we ever decided to stay in Solvang for the night. Their restaurant has an incredible happy hour and great drinks.

San Luis Obispo & morro bay

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Scout Coffee

Hip coffee shop with delicious cappuccinos and an open and spacious interior.

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Nourish

Healthy, on-the-go meals. Nourish has pre-made toasts, salads and baked goods. They also make smoothies, grain bowls, sandwiches and more. A great place to stop for a quick lunch.

Garden Gallery

We love stopping at Garden Galley! They have a huge selection of succulents, house plants, flowers and home decor. We always end up buying a new plant each trip!

Shine Cafe

Shine Cafe is part of Sunshine Health foods located in Morro Bay. In the cafe you’ll find fresh and locally sourced vegan dishes.

Seeds

Smoothie bowls, parfaits, juices and gourmet avocado toast!

Cambria

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Cambria Beach Lodge

After a full day of driving and exploring, we usually end up making it to Cambria just in time for sunset. We always stay the night at Cambria Beach Lodge which is located right across the street from Moonstone Beach. It’s a small boutique hotel with the cutest ocean view lobby, cozy rooms, a roof deck and free bike rentals.

Soto’s True Earth Market

Local health food store in Cambria. We always stop here on our way out as it’s one of the last health food stores before you get into Big Sur. They carry all the best health food brands, homemade baked goods and fresh local produce.

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Big Sur

The Big Sur coast is truly one of the most magical places I’ve ever experienced, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that most of it is untouched by humans. Unfortunately, as the area gains more popularity with travelers, it’s fragile natural environment has been put in jeopardy. When visiting Big Sur it’s important to be very mindful of how our behavior might impact the environment and the community. Be sure to follow The 7 Leave No Trace Principles which can be found HERE.

Local volunteers have also launched “The Big Sur Pledge”, an effort to encourage tourists to appreciate the beauty of the region without harming its environment. Click HERE to take the pledge.

Big Sur Pledge

I pledge to:

  • Share our coastal roads in a safe manner.

  • Be mindful of the impact of my actions.

  • Protect and respect Big Sur’s natural resources, public and private property, residents, employees, and visitors.

  • Leave no trace; and not damage or take what is not mine.

  • Camp only where allowed.

  • Be vigilant and fire safe.

  • Be a steward of this precious resource for the enjoyment of all.

  • Honor the spirit of Big Sur as it honors me.

  • Put the pledge into action.

To learn more about conservation efforts in Big Sur and to donate to the cause, check out the non-profit group Ventana Wildlife Society.

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Ragged Point

Our first stop in Big Sur is always Ragged Point. There’s a beautiful coastal view, bathrooms, a restaurant, convenience store and one of the last places to get gas for a while. The gas is pricey, but I recommend that you have at least a half tank before you go any further.

Salmon Creek Falls

It’s an easy .3 mile hike to the 120-foot water fall and a good place to get out, stretch your legs and get your blood moving after sitting in the car for a couple hours.

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McWay Falls

Mcway Falls is one of those places that you just have to see for yourself. Pictures will never do it justice. The 80 foot-tall waterfall lands directly onto the sand. Mountains and trees surround it and the water is crystal clear. It’s truly one of the most magnificent things I’ve ever seen. It can get quite busy so go early if you can. As of recently the trail is closed for rehabilitation, but you can still get an incredible view from the street.

Ewoldsen Trail

If you’re looking for a moderate to challenging hike, Ewoldsen trail is a stunning 5.3 mile trek through the redwood forest, ending with a beautiful ocean overlook at the top. The trailhead is just a few steps away from the entrance to McWay Falls, which makes it a great two in one experience. I recommend doing the hike first and then rewarding yourself with the short walk to view McWay at the bottom.

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Nepenthe & Cafe Kevah

When driving through Big Sur you’ll notice that there aren’t many restaurant options, which is why we always come prepared with lots of snacks and food to prep meals if we’re camping. But, we ALWAYS stop at Cafe Kevah for breakfast (their bacon is incredible) and Nepenthe for a cheese board and the best bloody mary in town. Both restaurants (located right next to each other) are a little pricey and their menus are small, but the view and atmosphere is incredible!

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Garrapata State Park

Garrapata State Park is usually one of our last stops before we head to Carmel. In the spring you’ll see the area covered in wild flowers. There’s a number of different hiking/walking trails the will lead you to the beach or into the redwood groves. It’s really beautiful!

Camping In big sur

Kirk Creek Campground

This campground is the closest I’ve found to the water. The views are stunning! You’ll want to book a few months in advanced to secure a spot as they do tend to fill up very quickly.

Ventana Campground

Nate and I camped here on our first trip to Big Sur. We didn’t book anything in advance and arrived late. Luckily we were able to snag a spot at Ventana upon arrival. The campground has very nice bathrooms and is surrounded by redwood trees.

Hotels in big sur

I’ve personally never stayed at a hotel in Big Sur. There aren’t many options in the area so the rates are sky high. If you’re looking to stay at a hotel, be prepared to spend a pretty penny. We always opt to save money and camp, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t looked into every hotel option. After some research these are the best options I found.

Treebones

Ventana Resort

Glen oaks big sur

Post ranch inn

Helpful tips

  • Have a plan mapped out. Star all the places you want to go on google maps ahead of time so that you can get a better idea of where everything is. Download the map so that you can view offline.

  • In my experience, late April to early May is the best time to visit Big Sur. It’s just after the spring break crowd files out and before the summer rush comes in. The weather is mild, warm during the day and brisk at night. It’s also when the spring wild flowers are in full bloom!

  • Make sure you get gas before you get into Big Sur, otherwise you’re going to pay an arm and a leg (or run out all together).

  • Plan on not having service the entire time.

  • Bring a portable charger and a camera.

  • Come prepared with plenty of water and food, especially if you have dietary restrictions as there aren’t many options in Big Sur. I have a road trip eats blog post you can check out to get some ideas on whats good to bring camping.

  • Respect the land, stay on trails and leave no trace behind.

  • The roads are windy and narrow and the cliffs are steep. Use caution while driving through Big Sur and be mindful when pulling off the highway. There are many beautiful spots to stop along the way, just make sure you are careful when pulling off.

Carmel-By-The-Sea

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Hotel Carmel

Arriving to Hotel Carmel after a few days of off-the-grid camping is a rather magical feeling. We love staying here on the last leg of our road trip to recuperate, relax and enjoy Carmel-By-The-Sea. Hotel Carmel is a refurbished boutique hotel that features cottage-style architecture with a modern twist. It’s located in the heart of downtown Carmel and walking distance from the beach. Their lobby is what interior dreams are made of.

Brophy’s Tavern

Brophy’s is located inside Hotel Carmel and has a wide variety of salads and a delicious bloody mary.

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Stationaery

Stationaery was such a pleasant surprise on our last trip! Offering breakfast, lunch and specialty coffee, they source their ingredients from local farms and ranches. The food was out of this world, and the service was warm and friendly. You MUST go here if you ever find yourself in Carmel.

Happy Girl Kitchen Co.

Happy Girl Kitchen is a farm-to-table, organic vegetarian cafe a few minutes from downtown Carmel. Everything on their menu is delicious and they also sell house made jams, pickles and fermented goods!

courtnie hamel